Erie County Sheriff’s Office disciplinary records show double-digit terminations

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While the sheriff's office may levy serious punishment more often than other departments, most of the 291 complaints over two years are deemed unfounded or the employee is only counseled by superiors.

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has terminated 15 employees, and three resigned over a two-year period for a variety of reasons, including for providing false information, being a suspect in a burglary and sleeping while on duty.

A News 4 Investigates analysis of the sheriff’s office disciplinary records over the two-year period obtained by a Freedom of Information law request shows that they leveled serious punishment against employees at a higher percentage than most, according to one leading expert on police accountability. The expert defined serious punishment as being a termination, resignation or suspension of two weeks or longer. Three of the terminated employees got their jobs back through arbitration.

“It is not usual that police officers are dismissed or have long suspensions at the same rate as you were able to demonstrate,” said Merrick Bobb, a consultant who has monitored numerous law enforcement agencies across the country.

Still, employees in most cases – roughly 70 percent – are exonerated after an internal investigation or they are counseled by his or her superiors.

This is the first time these records have seen daylight in decades because a state law often referred to as 50a allowed law enforcement agencies to keep disciplinary records secret. The state repealed the law this summer in response to increasing police violence.

News 4 obtained 291 disciplinary records for 2018 and 2019 and found:

  • 98 of the complaints are for some type of vehicle accident;
  • Six allegations of sexual harassment, all unfounded;
  •  13 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, all unfounded.
  • Nine complaints of excessive force. Only one is off the force, when Deputy Kenneth Achtyl in 2019 was found guilty of assault and resigned over an excessive force complaint at the Buffalo Bills stadium. The incident is now the subject of a civil case.

Of the 291 complaints against employees, 30% received some form of punishment. That would include letters of reprimand, suspensions, terminations and resignations. Letters of reprimand, which may seem like a slap on the hand, are considered serious punishment by unions and employees.

John Greenan, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office undersheriff who oversees the internal investigations, said someone who gets a letter of reprimand has likely already been “counseled” more than once by superiors for past behavior. Once a letter of reprimand is in an employee’s file, that employee can get suspended for the next sustained complaint.

“We have a thousand employees and like any group, we’re going to have some bad apples,” Greenan said.

For serious punishment, the percentage falls to 8%.

While that may seem low, Bobb said it is above average.

“I would not read that as a low number,” Bobb said.

“Especially because other counties are barely going to get up over 2% or 3%.”

Greenan said a lot of thought goes into disciplinary decisions, especially terminations, because the employee will get paid for all time lost if they are overturned.

“And in the meantime, we’ve paid somebody else time and a half to cover that person’s shift,” Greenan said.

“So, when we go to make a decision, we have to think very carefully, if we terminate this person, will it be sustained? Because otherwise we’re really giving somebody a paid two-year vacation, and that at the end of the day doesn’t seem to most people to be a punishment for something that an employee should have been punished for.”

Greenan said complaints can come from the public, supervisors and inmates at either the holding center or the Alden correctional facility. However, most of the 291 complaints came internally, he said.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that we don’t get many complaints from outside individuals,” he said.

“The vast majority of items that are investigated by our Professional Standards Division really have to do with the fact that we get reports from our staff telling us that an employee may have violated policy here.”

Greenan also pointed out the lack of excessive force complaints, saying in the past they did get quite a few “false accusations” of excessive force until they installed video cameras in the jails. Body cameras for jail deputies are on the way, he said.

“It’s either going to exonerate or it’s going to convict deputies who have to use force,” he said.

Almost all the terminations and resignations involve holding center and correctional facility employees.

For example:

  • Five terminated employees were accused of crimes, including burglary, shoplifting and promoting prostitution.
  • A former reserve deputy identified himself as a county deputy while soliciting work that he received partial payment for but never completed the work.
  • A former holding center employee was fired for taking extended sick leave for a leg injury, only to be caught playing ice hockey at the Harborcenter.
  • A former Division of Correctional Health employee was terminated for “allegations of failure to follow and document proper protocol and procedures, as well as providing false information.”

Greenan said employees are represented by one of three labor unions, who can start a grievance process over some punishment, including terminations.

“At some point during that grievance process we determine we can’t win this one,” he said.

“And quite often what we will do is we will either negotiate with the union a lesser penalty because we feel we don’t have a good shot of winning in front of an arbitrator, who tend to be quite liberal on these issues. And if that doesn’t occur, and we continue to terminate that employee, quite often that’s when an arbitrator may come along and say that was too severe of a punishment.”

Three employees did get their jobs back, and a fourth is contesting his firing in a civil court case for allegedly stealing a $20 gun pouch magazine. A holding center employee terminated for sleeping on duty in the fall of 2019 got his job back through arbitration.

In addition, a holding center employee terminated for alleged shoplifting got his job back after the case was dismissed, “despite the fact that we saw it on video,” Greenan said.

“We saw it happen,” he said.

“For whatever legal reasons – we weren’t the arresting agency – a judge ultimately dismissed those charges. Again, that’s beyond our control.”

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